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Inside Rancho Obi-Wan, America’s Largest Private Star Wars Collection

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by on July 9, 2013

Steve Sansweet is a man on a mission, and that mission is to preserve, catalog and share his collection of Star Wars stuff. It’s big. Just how big are we talking? Housed at his Sonoma County complex, appropriately dubbed Rancho Obi-Wan, the collection is the largest private collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world. As of June, the collection numbered 91,000 individual items and, according to Sansweet, “That is only one-third of the total collection. There’s a whole warehouse behind [the main building] with boxes we haven’t even opened yet.” Some estimate that there are as many as 300,000 pieces in the collection. When it comes to collecting all things Star Wars-related, the Force is strong with Sansweet.

Located about an hour north of San Francisco, CA, the 9,000 square foot facility is hidden on a small country road behind a custom white wrought iron gate emblazoned with a stippled portrait of Obi-Wan Kenobi himself, something of an oddity in a region famed for its rolling hills and wineries. With over 35 years of Star Wars history contained inside, it’s something of a Mecca for diehard Star Wars fans. But every good collection, like every good story, has to start somewhere.

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Image via David Yeh/Endor Express: http://bit.ly/IAOsZx.

For Sansweet, his collection began when he was working at the Wall Street Journal and a colleague received a promotional book for a little-known upcoming film called Star Wars. It was a simpler time, and the book ended up in the garbage can, but fortunately for us, Sansweet rescued it at the end of the day. The rest, as they say, was history. Prior to moving to northern California to accept a position at Lucasfilm where he worked in specialty marketing and continues to work as a consultant in fan relations, he built two additional stories on his Los Angeles residence to house his Star Wars collection. When he relocated, he was informed by the moving company that it was their second largest residential move.

The Sonoma County facility, formerly a chicken ranch, provided Sansweet with more than enough space to house his sprawling collection. There are still quite a few animals around the compound – two incredibly sweet dogs, some chickens (a throwback to the site’s heritage) and some goats – but the one-time barn has been completely overhauled into a state-of-the-art archive with room after room of books, concept art, bootleg action figures, and even ultra-rare German Star Wars toilet paper. (The tagline? “Wipe out the Dark Side.”)

The tour starts in Sansweet’s office, a crowded room packed with uncatalogued apocrypha and miscellany and heartfelt tributes addressed to Steve, portraits of him as various Star Wars characters, and even a signed poster with a personal message from George Lucas. All of this gives you the sense that Sansweet is the real deal. A trip down the hall will further that notion, as you step into a library that houses essentially every book on Star Wars ever written. Ever. In addition to the mammoth Star Wars Blueprints books are EU novels in nearly every language, Cantina Band sheet music that inexplicably features an illustration of Chewbacca sipping a martini (Sansweet noted that above all else, Star Wars tried to distance itself from ties to alcohol, making this Chewie extra eyebrow-raising), and, of course,  the 16 books on Star Wars that Sansweet authored himself, including a gigantic multivolume encyclopedia.

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Further down the long, narrow hallway lined with posters, Drew Struzan originals, and rare, out of print one-sheets is an auspicious-looking white door. Sansweet stops just outside, discreetly hits a button, and the door opens into a long, large room packed to the gills with all manner of Star Wars goodies while the infamous strains of John Williams’ theme blasts over the loudspeakers. Directly ahead of the door is a towering statue of Darth Vader, painstakingly assembled from costume parts used in the various films.  To the left are the Modal Nodes (acquired from the Las Vegas FAO Schwarz), who will gladly play you their famous song, and one of the rarest pieces in Sansweet’s collection, a banner featuring Ralph McQuarrie’s original artwork depicting an early, discarded logo, a conceptual image of Luke – still bearing his Starkiller moniker – from the summer of 1976 when Star Wars staffers, desperate to promote their film, went to Worldcon in Kansas City and Comic-Con in San Diego to drum up pre-release buzz. According to Sansweet, “if this place were to go up in flames, it would be the first thing I’d grab.”

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The rest of the room is filled with nearly every manner of merchandise one could imagine, both legal and otherwise: a Bantha piñata, bootleg action figures, bootlegs of bootleg action figures (seriously, Turkey, did you think that calling that dead-eyed brown monster Che Acca was going to fool anyone?), the last remains of Qui-Gon Jinn (rescued from the funeral pyre by Sansweet), pieces of the original Death Star, and my personal favorite, one of the carbon practice sabers that the actors used for choreographing their fights. Of the weighted practice sabers, Sansweet noted, “They had to learn their fight scenes quickly because if you didn’t… THWAP! These things will leave a mark.” There’s even an 18+ section, but unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take photographs of that, so I’ll just leave it to your presumably vivid imaginations.

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At this point, you could be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t any more memorabilia to behold, that there couldn’t possibly be more treasures hidden away in this “hive of fun and thrillery.” You could be forgiven, but you’d also be wrong. Behind a corridor modeled to look like one on an Imperial Star Destroyer lies yet another chamber filled with everything from Star Wars arcade machines and pinball machines to a Dejarik table (you know, the game that you should let the Wookiee win?) to choice selections from the Darth Vader Helmet Project to a rotating selection of incredible fan-made Star Wars artwork and more. It’s only fitting that the collection is nearly as vast as the Star Wars universe and mythos itself and it is to Sansweet’s immense credit that he’s sharing his enviable hoard with the world.

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Want to take the tour? There’s no minimum number of midi-chlorians required; rather, thanks to Rancho Obi-Wan’s recent transition to non-profit museum status, even regular old moisture farmers like you and me can take a private tour led by Sansweet himself. For $200 (or a commensurate amount of Republican credits), you and a guest can take a tour that runs 1-3 hours, depending on how many obscure questions you ask Steve and how much bodily flailing you do after seeing some of the incredible rarities within. We’d like to tell Sansweet that we love him, but like any scoundrel worth his salt, he knows.

Have you been to Rancho Obi-Wan? Do you have a Star Wars collection of your own? What’s your most treasured piece? Let us know in the comments below.